Hélène Desvallées (Stéphane Audran) and her husband Charles (Michel Bouquet) lead a seemingly happy and affluent life raising their young son. But Charles’ complacent world is turned upside down when he learns Hélène is having an affair with a writer named Victor Pegala (Maurice Ronet). He confronts Victor at his apartment, where their almost convivial discussion goes awry when Charles snaps and bludgeons the man to death. After Charles struggles to dispose of the body, it isn’t long before the police start sniffing around but Hélène's realisation of what her husband has done reawakens her love in a most unexpected way.
La Femme Infidèle (“The Unfaithful Wife”) is one of Claude Chabrol’s greatest achievements and probably his best known film since it was remade, to critical acclaim, as Unfaithful (2002) - for which star Diane Lane received an Oscar nomination. While the remake drew some praise for being a rare erotic thriller aimed at women and respecting their point of view, the original remains the more incisive and psychologically nuanced work, revealing yet again Chabrol’s expertise in unmasking deadly passions that lurk beneath the veneer of middle-class respectability. From the moment his camera circles, unobtrusive yet voyeuristically around the Desvallées family and Pierre Jensen’s elegantly unsettling piano theme intrudes upon this seemingly idyllic scene, we sense something is not quite right.
Interestingly, none of the clichés one associates with movies about unfaithful spouses are apparent here, given that Charles is not a neglectful husband and Hélène remains a loving wife. Beneath the surface however, complacency has set in as well as a lack of passion, with Charles at his happiest watching wine tasting classes on an eight-inch television screen. Ironically his one impulsive, murderous act exhibits the long dormant passion that reignites his wife’s love. Where your typical film noir scenario might find Charles approaching a sleazy private eye, here he hires a scrupulous investigator (Serge Bento) who is reluctant to trail Hélène. He does so out of professionalism then quietly excuses himself from the whole troubling affair.
Similarly, Victor is more multidimensional than your average lothario - an affable divorcee with children of his own. His confrontation with Charles is amusingly civilised at first, wherein they share drink and chat about how he and Hélène met and how their relationship is going. Victor even goes so far as to offer some advice on how to keep Hélène happy - until the mask of congeniality slips away and Chabrol shows how impossible it is to remain “rational” when dealing with such raw emotions. The murder lasts all of two seconds. Chabrol does not dwell on the act since it’s the aftermath that concerns him. Charles’ frantic attempts to cover his tracks results in nail-biting tension and showcases Chabrol’s playfully sly sense of humour. As he drives away with Victor’s body in the trunk of his car, he passes a cinema showing Les Biches (1968), then promptly crashes into a truck driven by one of its stars, Henri Attal!
As usual with Chabrol films, at the centre rests a pair of perfectly pitched performances. Both Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran are skilful actors able to convey love, repressed angst and despair without any words. This is also one of the maestro’s most aesthetically pleasing movies, from the almost clinically precise camera movements, the groove-tastic décor and dishy dancers around the swinging nightclub frequented by Hélène and Charles, right down to the way Chabrol lingers lovingly on his then-spouse Stéphane Audran at her most seductively sublime.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.